Fact-checking Misty Adoniou on the phonics check

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Misty Adoniou is a regular columnist for The Conversation in Australia. She is an odd choice for this role because she is more of a campaigner than an impartial communicator of academic findings. And she was in full campaign mode this week as she railed against the proposed phonics check for Year 1 students.

Let me be clear; I am in favour of introducing this check. It has been 12 years since the publication of the results from Australia’s national inquiry into the teaching of reading and the recommendation that teachers use systematic and explicit teaching of phonics. Yet it’s hard to see the impact of this on the ground. One hint as to what is happening can be gleaned from the various advice documents that schools produce for parents. These tend to caution against the ‘sounding out’ of words and instead recommend strategies such as guessing words from context or from pictures. These approaches are associated with whole language teaching rather than phonics – Ken Goodman’s ‘psycho-linguistic guessing game‘ – and have been singled out for criticism by a U.K. review of the evidence

Another worrying piece of evidence comes from one recent study which suggested Australian teachers lack knowledge of the key concepts required for systematic phonics instruction. If this is the case then they have been badly let down by the schools of education that should be teaching this stuff.

However, it is hard to tell exactly what is going on in the classroom. Year 3 NAPLAN reading comprehension tests are too far removed from initial reading instruction and conflate phonics knowledge with vocabulary and general knowledge. That’s why we need a check. Such a check has been in place in England since 2011 and this is where Misty Adoniou’s article enters the picture.

What would a general reader, unacquainted with the research, make of the following statement?

“…so far, the phonics test in England has not improved reading comprehension scores.”

You might assume that reading comprehension scores have been flat. But that would be incorrect. According to a 2015 review, there have been improvements in the key test of reading comprehension that takes place at the end of Year 2 during this time. These improvements began prior to the introduction of the check. However, there was a general awareness that the check was on its way and the review notes that some schools involved in the pilot had already started to change their phonics instruction. Can anyone prove that the improvements are due to the check? No. Is it highly suggestive? I think so.

Adoniou also seems to be a fan of ‘analytic’ phonics. This is a whole-to-part approach where phonics knowledge is taught through the analysis of words rather than discretely as in the ‘synthetic’ approach. The phonics check aligns better with synthetic phonics. Adoniou claims:

“There is no evidence that one phonics approach is better than the other. In England, the US and Australia, there have been major inquiries into reading and all have concluded that systematic and explicit phonics teaching is a crucial part of effective reading instruction. But none have found any evidence that synthetic phonics approaches are better than analytic phonics approaches, or vice versa.”

Here is a quote from the Australian inquiry that she is referring to:

“Notwithstanding these assertions, findings from the seven-year study undertaken by Johnston and Watson (2005a,b) clearly indicate the superior efficacy of synthetic phonics instruction and are worthy of mention here…

Three training programs were conducted with 300 children for 16 weeks, beginning soon after entry to the first year of formal schooling. For 20 minutes per day, children were taught either: (a) by a synthetic phonics program, or (b) by an analytic phonics program, or (c) by an analytic phonics plus phonological-awareness training program.

At the end of these programs, the synthetic phonics taught group were: (a) reading words around seven months ahead of the other two groups, (b) were reading around seven months ahead for their chronological age, (c) were spelling around eight to nine months ahead of the other groups, and (d) were again performing in spelling around seven months ahead of chronological age. The synthetic phonics taught group also read irregular words better than the other groups, and was the only group that could read unfamiliar words by analogy.

So Adoniou must have missed that bit. She also seems to have missed the words at the end of the 2017 U.K. phonics check such as ‘model’ and ‘chapter’ because she thinks it, “only tests single syllable words”.

There is a serious debate to be had about this issue. I think a phonics check would help but it is no panacea. I am particularly concerned about the possibility that we hang too much on phonics and neglect the development of children’s general knowledge; the latter being critical for later reading comprehension. Note that England has a far meatier national curriculum in place than our watery and degraded effort.

However, we need to have this debate in an informed way. Misleading arguments don’t help.


31 thoughts on “Fact-checking Misty Adoniou on the phonics check

  1. Michael pye says:

    Does anyone know a simple guide to systemic synthetic phonics? I accept it’s efficacy but lack knowledge. Please no academic texts, something that will allow me to master the basics.

    • Alpha to omega, newell literacy program, phono-graphix are good programs for use in the class room and will give a good overview of the approach. toe by toe, is good for individual work, some people love it but I don’t have any experience of it. I will try to get links etc and think of more single volume texts.

    • Hi Michael,
      You say you want a guide so here goes:
      When we talk about reading and writing in English, we are talking about an alphabetic writing system that has been designed to represent the sounds of the language for which it was written. In the case of many alphabetic languages, the system is fairly simple. Most sounds are represented by one-letter spellings, with the occasional two-letter spellings thrown in.
      English is more complicated, which is why many lay people think it’s impossible to teach in the same way that languages like, say, Spanish can be taught.
      Because English is primarily an Anglo-Saxon language, on which has been grafted Norse, Norman French and French, and later Greek and Latinate words, it is complex and, therefore, it takes time to teach properly, which here means in a way in which children are able to read and write anything. Children can even make a good fist of reading and spelling more complex words or words containing rare spellings (A while ago, I saw a five-year-old spell ‘imbecile’ ‘imbaseeal’, for example).
      As phonics proponents maintain (rightly) that approaches that encourage children to memorise whole words hobble them because it is impossible to memorise all the words, or even a small percentage of the words, in the language, their approach is to teach the relationship between the sounds and spellings of the sounds: all children learn to speak naturally; phonics teachers teach the spellings which represent them. SSP programs start with the simple – one letter spellings to one sounds – and gently build on children’s knowledge over time. they do this because phonics teaching is massively generative: even after learning a small number of sound-spelling correspondences, children can read and write hundreds of words, a process which grows thereafter exponentially.
      The best programs also teach the skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation so that children are able to use the code knowledge they have to read and write words they have never seen before. And they teach children how the alphabet code is structured conceptually.
      Finally, the best phonics programs teach from sound to print. This is because there are a finite number of sounds in English (around 44) and the sounds give us an anchor for all our teaching. In fact the only constant in the system is the sounds of the language. Admittedly, it’s very hard to learn eight or nine ways of spelling many vowel and consonant sounds but, taken carefully and taught over time with lots of practice, SSP advocates would maintain that it is possible to teach very nearly all children (98%) to read and write.
      Best wishes,

  2. Pingback: Debate around the Year One Phonics Screening Test - Messy Mind Education

  3. John Perry says:

    “However, we need to have this debate in an informed way. Misleading arguments don’t help.”

    Is there a reason why you’ve taken the debate over here rather than on the TC website?

    • John Perry says:

      I’m puzzled as to why Misty hasn’t been allowed a right of reply here, nor that the fact checking has been done here and not in the original post on TC.

      • John Perry says:

        “Misty is free to leave a comment”

        According to Misty, she has tried to, but her comments have not been published.

      • David Zyngier says:

        This from Misty in an email to me today 7/11/17. Will you publish it?

        “I did indeed try to post to Greg Ashmans blog where he ‘fact checks’ me, but it wasn’t published. I then wrote in response to his one question that he asked on TC website and asked him to please post his critique of my article into the comments of my article so that I could respond to them, and so that other people could read his critique and my responses in the context of the original article. He declined to do so.

        I’ve come to the conclusion that they have no interest in actually addressing any of the issues I raise.

        All of their new critique of the article I have written on the AARE blog does not address any of the evidence I present in the article. They never do. They are very busy protecting commercial interests. They are so rabid that they turn on other phonics programs like THRASS who have come out publicly to say that the phonics check is a mistake. If you are on Facebook check out THRASS to see the blue on blue attacks happening there.

        I’m not on social media in any case, but if I was I wouldn’t bother engaging with them. I only need to convince 8 people, the education ministers before the Education council meeting in December. My energy is going there. But I appreciate the efforts of anyone who continues to direct these people back to the basic fact that England reading comprehension results have not improved over the 7 years of this check. That is the beginning, middle and end of this story I reckon. Why do they never respond to that bit of inconvenient evidence!

        They draw attention right away from any critique of the phonics check and just go straight to ‘denying kids the right to read’ , ‘Reading has to be taught’. Neither of which has anything to do with the critique of the screening check. Of course reading has to be taught. It is a learned skill, not a natural condition, it needs to be taught explicitly. And so does phonics. I’ve never said otherwise. In fact I say it all the time.

        My critique is of the English phonics check.


        Misty Adoniou PhD”

      • David Zyngier says:

        So Greg will you respond to Misty’s critique of the Phonics Check or not? If you do why not do it publicly on TC site so 1000’s of others can be involved.

      • If I choose to respond then it will be about Misty’s latest post on the AARE blog site and I will respond to it on my blog. I will probably start by pointing out the difference between phonics and phonological awareness.

        I am saddened, as will many readers be, to see that Misty has chosen to attack her opponents personally, including me. I have no commercial interest in a phonics check and Misty should therefore withdraw that allegation. We should stick to the substance of phonics and the phonics check.

        I am also saddened that Misty appears to see no need to engage with those who raise legitimate criticism about the content of her argument because all she apparently needs to do is persuade eight ministers.

      • David Zyngier says:

        I am sure Misty will be pleased to engage with you on the AARE blog but more people read TC so why not put the comments in both places.

      • Misty is simply incorrect in her claims about reading comprehension and the phonics check. The following is publicly available information:

        Number of children achieving the expected level of reading comprehension in Key Stage 1 SATS at the end of Year 2:

        2007-2009 – 84%
        2010-2011 – 85%
        2012 – 87%
        2013 – 89%
        2014 – 90%:

        Note that this gradual rise began with the cohort who were in reception for the academic year 2007-08, that is, the first year that phonics teaching was introduced.

        Number of children with SEN achieving the expected level of reading comprehension in Key Stage 1 SATS at the end of Year 2 (figures are not available for before 2011):

        2011 – 52%
        2012 – 55%
        2013 – 58%
        2014 – 60%:

        (The reports containing these figures can be found by googling ‘Statistics on national curriculum assessments at key stage 1’ along with the relevant year.)

        While it is always possible, of course, that the check played no role in this, her statement about what happened “over the years of the check” is factually incorrect.

  4. Hi Greg
    I’m pleased to be able to post a response to your piece. Although I have tried to do so before 🙂

    I expect we have a huge amount in common when it comes to beliefs about effective classroom instruction.
    I believe in the explicit instruction of reading, writing and spelling. I believe teachers need more knowledge of how the English language works at word and sentence level in order to be the best teachers of literacy.

    Just like you,’ I am particularly concerned about the possibility that we hang too much on phonics and neglect the development of children’s general knowledge’ – and not only their general knowledge but all of the other word knowledge that is absolutely crucial to the development of their reading and writing skills.

    I believe teachers and 5 year old children need to know the historical reason for why the words ‘what, where, when and why’ start with ‘wh’, and not simply explain it away as a silent ‘h’. I believe they need to know that the ‘ty’ on the end of sixty is a German suffix that means multiples of ten, and ‘teen’ means the addition of ten. I believe they need to know that the ‘s’ on the end of – he walks – is a third person suffix, whilst on the end of – i take my dog for walks – it is a suffix marking the plural. I believe they need know that the ‘w’ in ‘two’ can be heard in the related words of twin, twelve and twenty. I believe they should know that the ‘ed’ on the end of jumped is the suffix that marks the simple past tense, and the past participle.

    I could go on – but you get the point. I believe that children should know the ‘why’ of phonics not just the ‘what’ of phonics. What powerful knowledge that is to be teaching our children. None of that teaching is prompted by the phonics check, because it is simply looking at a very small number of simple phoneme/grapheme connections.

    If I can just respond to your two fact-checks of my Conversation article.
    1. She also seems to have missed the words at the end of the 2017 U.K. phonics check such as ‘model’ and ‘chapter’ because she thinks it, “only tests single syllable words”.

    I did respond to this in the comments section of The Conversation. I actually wrote:
    ‘the test only tests single syllable words with regular phonic patterns’
    This is accurate.Or are you claiming that the test also tests single syllable words with irregular phonic patterns?

    In the AARE blog I also pointed out the faults in the test a

    2. You pulled out of the Australian inquiry into reading a description of the Scottish Clackmannanshire study. It was indeed an influential study – it convinced Jim Rose in England. Unfortunately the short term gains of the study did not carry through to later results as the children moved through school. Indeed in a 2006 report on the reading performance of Clackmannanshire, the Scottish inspectorate found it to be ‘below the average for comparative authorities’. It is why Scotland didn’t replicate the approach in all its authorities. It is really important that we recognise that the gains made in synthetic phonics assessments don’t automatically translate to gains in reading comprehension. This is the case in England. Here are the reading comprehension SAT results for Year 2 children in England for the past two years 2016 74% reaching benchmark 2017 76% – and for low SES children that score is 61%. Something else is happening – as you rightly note phonics is not the panacea.

    There were many other studies quoted in that Australian report which described successful ‘balanced literacy’ programs. But I chose not to pull out any of the example studies, but rather to quote their overall finding, which was this:
    The Committee recommends that teachers provide systematic,
    direct and explicit phonics instruction so that children master
    the essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for
    foundational reading profi ciency. Equally, that teachers
    provide an integrated approach to reading that supports the
    development of oral language, vocabulary, grammar, reading
    fluency, comprehension and the literacies of new technologies.

    I agree with that finding. I expect you do too. But that finding does not specify a synthetic phonics approach. In a recent 2017 publication Greg Brooks – co author of the Torgerson et al review of phonics for the Rose report – reiterated ‘the research evidence is not yet strong enough to justify it as a total solution (supposing that could ever be the case).’

    It is perfectly possible and reasonable to be an advocate for phonics and explicit teaching – which I am – and have concerns about the English phonics check – which I do and which I have shared. As does Brooks, who said in the same publication ‘I remain firmly of the view that imposing the Year 1 phonics check on 5 and 6 year olds is an abomination – why has all the moral sense of the fitness of things educational deserted those who advocate it?’

    Finally, it is so important that we don’t give false hope to the parents of children who struggle with reading and writing. I know you have not made this claim, but i want to make the point for any of your readers who may think the check will solve reading difficulties . This phonics check can’t ‘fix’ dyslexia. It does not pick them up any earlier than they are being picked up. Nor does it tell the teachers what to do with those struggling readers and this is because their struggles are cognitive and widely diverse. Yet I see the passionate pleas from parent dyslexia associations saying we should have the check because their child would have been ‘saved’ by it.

    I know just how vulnerable, frustrated, angry and grief stricken these parents are. I was one of them. By the end of Kindergarten it was clear reading and writing was not going to come easy to my daughter. And I cried and cried. I cried because she wasn’t going to be the ‘good¹ student I had pictured. I cried for all the struggles she would face in school. And I continued to cry as I saw her confidence slip away. I cried because I thought I must surely be to blame, at least partly. Or was it her school that was not teaching her properly? I was sure I had done all the environmental things right – I read to her everyday for all her life. But had I passed faulty genes on to her?

    She¹s 29 now. She went to university – and is a visual artist. She reads and writes. It took us until Year 4 for all to begin to come together. That¹s a long time to hang in there. But dyslexia isn¹t fixed – it¹s a permanent congenital condition of the brain. It¹s a matter of finding out
    where the cognitive strengths are, and tapping into those strengths. She did a lot of phonics too!
    Believe me if I thought this phonics check would have caught and ‘fixed’ my daughter in Year 1, or anyone’s child – I¹d be the first to be behind it. But it won¹t.
    Our children are already caught in year 1. Their teachers didn¹t need the check to find them.
    But the challenge remains- once found, what is that they need from us. This check can¹t tell us that. Let¹s put the focus and the money on helping teachers know what to do with these children.

    And finally, as I have argued this many times. let’s get serious about helping upper primary and secondary teachers teach the complexity of their texts. Reading instruction isn’t done and dusted in the early years of schooling. As texts get more complex, instruction should not become less frequent. Upper primary and secondary teachers need professional learning in reading instruction. This is the big hole in teacher professional practice, and we can see the consequence in the dramatic fall in reading comprehension in NAPLAN from Year 5 to Year 9.

    Greg, I reckon that if you and sat down and chatted we’d have far more in common than we have differences. And I definitely know that we have both devoted a lifetime to doing our best for our students – and I reckon that deserves a mutual pat on the back.

    • Hi Misty

      Thanks for your response.

      I still think your piece is misleading. I will concede the point about single syllable words but I would suggest your choice wording is unfortunate because a layperson could definitely get the message that only single syllable words are assessed in the phonics check.

      I would also reiterate the point about reading comprehension made in the post above. Over 2012-2015, the proportion of students reaching the expected level at KS1 rose from 76% to 82%. This then dropped back in 2016 under a new, tougher assessment regime but has risen again in 2017. So I think your comments on this are deeply misleading.

      As for your comments about systematic synthetic phonics, I refer readers back to what you wrote and what was written in the Australian government report. There is a clear contradiction there.

      In terms of your suggestion that the phonics check does not test etymology then I would have to agree that it does not. It also doesn’t test a whole range of other things. The purpose is to test phonics knowledge which is a crucial, but not sufficient, component in children learning to read well.

      I would be happy to sit down and chat but only after you withdraw you allegation, as relayed by David Zyngier, that my support for the phonics check is motivated by commercial self-interest.

      • David Zyngier says:

        Greg & Tempe I am sure that Misty’s comment above and in the AARE article
        “All of their new critique of the article I have written on the AARE blog does not address any of the evidence I present in the article. They never do. They are very busy protecting commercial interests.”

        does not specifically refer to anyone in particular – especially not Greg in this case.

        I think you are reading too much into the phrase.

    • Tempe says:

      Hi Misty – That is a pretty serious allegation to make about someone. Do you have any evidence to support your claim that Greg Ashman is benefiting financially? If not then I would suggest a public apology is due.

    • Kirsten says:

      Hi Misty, like you I agree that the etymology of words etc is vitally important and useful, and underutilised as a teaching/learning tool. However, I can’t agree that ‘our children are already caught in Year 1’ and that teachers don’t ‘need the check to find them’.

      As my child progressed from Kindy to Year 3 at his local NSW public school, he showed ongoing issues with reading and spelling. Despite me voicing my concerns, his (passionate, dedicated, lovely) teachers continued to reassure me that he was ‘just a boy’, that I should ‘wait and see’, and ‘it will probably click all at once’. Halfway through Year 3, by which point his younger brother was streets ahead of him with reading and spelling, I had him privately tested and he was identified as dyslexic.

      In retrospect he had classic issues with decoding words, and he would have performed very poorly on nonsense words that followed common patterns (eg vot, wip, lape, etc). A phonics screening check in Year 1 would have seen this picked up at age 6, and I could have started external evidence-supported remediation at that point (SSP, Minilit/Multilit, MSL etc). Yes, ideally his school would provide these (they don’t). Yes, it’s unfair that my child can get help because I can afford it ( thousands can’t).

      As it is, I missed the important neurological window of 6 – 8 years old, and his attitude toward school and his self-esteem had nose-dived. (For example, on Sunday afternoons he would start destroying his room/sobbing/etc at the prospect of starting the school week). Luckily I had the means and resources to get him tested myself and to investigate ways to help him, and he is making good progress.

      I have heard literally hundreds of stories online in this vein, and you surely have too.

      A PSC isn’t a panacea, especially not without a well-considered and extensive framework around it. You’re 100% right that ‘the challenge remains – once found, what it is they need from us.’ But surely it’s a start in the right direction.

  5. Hi Greg
    David posted an amalgam of personal email communications. I do not believe you have any commercial self interest in this debate. It is unfortunate that the ‘they’ did not clearly differentiate from the who in the previous sentence when he reposted some of my communication. I apologise for offence or misunderstanding this may have caused.

    I had hoped I was explaining that the phonics of words are explained by their morphology and their etymology and thus to teach or assess phonics in isolation of this other information is not helpful, nor efficient. It presents children with only part of the story behind why words are written as they are.

    We all want the best results for kids, but this has become an emotionally charged debate, provoking responses that are upsetting for all. I think I’ll leave the public debate here. People can read all that has been written, follow the links to material we have both referenced and make up their own minds.

    But i would like to chat with you in person some day. You are thoughtful and passionate about education. I expect we’d find common causes. Just not the phonics check 🙂

    Best wishes

      • Good debate. Enjoyable reading. I love a good academic stouch.

        There should be more of it.

        In primary school they learn to read. In secondary school they read to learn.

        I watch this debate from the stands hoping the students we get in Year 7 have learned to read. Sadly many have not. The system is a little broken.
        Let the debate continue.

    • Way to go Misty! Following closely and you are absolutely right. You can not isolate phonemes and graphemes or you are no longer talking about either. Check out Gina Cooke at LEX if you get a chance. Lots of great info there!

  6. Paul says:

    Misty- have you taught the etymology and morphology of words to a 5 year old? How has that helped teach them CVC words? All students with reading/spelling difficulties are being caught anyway? You said you were on Dyslexia support group forums so you must have skipped the hundreds of pleas from parents who have kids that are struggling and their schools/teachers DONT KNOW WHAT TO DO! SSP will help all of these kids, or allow proper early intervention that’s followed up and supported in the classroom. Once they have the code they can read words already embedded in their vocabulary and attack words that aren’t that build their vocabulary. No SSP advocate ever suggests not including comprehension, oral language etc in teaching – just that we can’t start here or expect kids to learn by analysing whole words, using picture cues to guess or using the first letter to find a words that fits with context. The phonics check will hopefully make schools aware that their teaching methods need a rethink. Our national literacy results are terrible for a so called first world country. Our incarcerated in Australia lean heavily on the illiterate side. What’s that saying about doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result? I’m in schools everyday and the comments/lack of knowledge from teachers regarding teaching our language is severely lacking- and I used to be one of them! Be as dedicated and hard working as you like – if you teach whole language/analytic phonics it won’t reach all students and our results will continue to fall. A big reason comprehension falls off in later years of primary is kids can’t decode larger words- simple as that. You can’t read a word how are you supposed to be able to comprehend it or even start to find the meaning? No one is saying the phonics check is the panacea but it will make teachers and schools start to rethink this fundamental part of using, learning and teaching our language.

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